Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Photo by Emile Guillemot on Unsplash

Since graduating last summer, I finally had the time to start reading the way I used to before university. But it was then that I realised reading is a skill that has to be developed and one cannot, against assumption, wade into the world of books without some skill.

Since August I have been reading, albeit spradically and somewhat slowly. The reason I start at this point is because Pachinko is the first book in so long that I just couldn’t put down. I found myself reading well into the early hours of the morning, unable to turn down the light and go to sleep. ‘One more chapter..’ and then the next and the next and it would suddenly be 5am.

This is the first book in so many years that I can say I’ve done that. I felt like the younger version of myself that would spend whole summers in the library near my home. This is the read that kickstarted my reading once more.

Before I finally go on to the review — a bit on the copy I read. I brought Pachinko in The Margate Bookshop on a staycation in Kent. There’s some nostalgia with this read and that sweet early autumnal seaside holiday. Although I didn’t know it then, this story is, at first, set against the sea also.

“History has failed us. No matter.” Pachinko follows the lives of a Korean-Japanese family through 1910–1989, with particular focus on life under Japanese occupation of Korea and during World War II.

There are so many devastating moments in this novel, despite that overwhelming sadness I couldn’t put it down. There’s so much suffering in the novel, it’s almost unimaginable that a single family or particular person (Sunja) could go through just that much. The novel is built on the hardships that the women face, whilst carrying their family through such tragedy.

“A woman’s lot is to suffer.”

The depictions of the in-between, complete otherness of Korean people in Japan was powerful — not belonging to North or South Korea whilst being denied Japanese identity. They are perpetual outsiders — projecting a myth of escaping their lot into the English-speaking world. The question of ‘why would you want to identify with Korea’s old colonisers’ is constantly presented and yet the answer is clear — there is more to Japan than blood.

The pachinko machines, from where the novel gains its title, is an important symbol and object in the lives of the Korean-Japanese people. The criminality and stereotyping of the machines mirror the prejudiced conception of Koreans by the Japanese. Just as fate, and the twiddling of the machines by the owners, determine success at the casinos; so too are the lives of Koreans shaped by similar forces of destiny and others’ influence.

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